Unleashing Marketing’s Potential: Experiences Of An Agile Marketing Train Inside a Corporate Marketing Organization
By Yuval Yeret, SAFe Fellow/SPCT
This experience report outlines the agile journey of a Corporate Marketing group in a major enterprise software technology vendor. We will explore the business drivers, the actions we took, and what we learned while applying SAFe to help this group achieve business agility through the application of agile marketing and beyond. Hopefully, these lessons can serve you when extending agility beyond Tech/IT in your enterprise.
This particular marketing group was accountable for Brand and Demand Marketing and spanned several hundred marketers organized functionally into areas such as Product Marketing, Field Marketing, Integrated/Digital Marketing, Marketing Technology (MarTech), and Analytics.
The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) grew interested in improving agility to address the challenges the marketing organization was facing in providing marketing contribution to the company’s business/revenue operations:
- Organized functionally, marketers had to work through entrenched, siloed, and a command & control culture. While marketers were already organized with the responsibility to market a certain product/solution, they were not empowered to collaborate effectively with peers in different functional areas and had to go through their functional managers way too often. Marketers mentioned that issuing a tweet from a corporate account required 6 levels of approvals.
- Marketers were drowning in work. The workload was unsustainable. This included both too many commitments and juggling too many contexts at the same time.
- The environment was risk-averse and failure and mistakes were not generally tolerated.
- Integration across the marketing functions was only happening at the top. The CMO was hoping to see many “Mini-CMOs” throughout her organization but was frustrated that even her SVPs weren’t integrating and focusing on outcomes enough.
- Work was “too agile”. It didn’t help that some teams were told to run agile pilots that were agile in name only and were only creating cynicism to the real agile potential.
These challenges created an environment where marketers struggled and could not unleash their creativity and passion. Unfortunately, in our experience, this environment is somewhat typical in marketing organizations and not unique to this company.
- Be more responsive to the shifting demands of the market (deliver impactful marketing faster)
- Be able to quickly adjust marketing tactics based on market feedback, in a seamless, streamlined manner, not through fire-drills
- Make the workload more sustainable by helping manage the balance of planned and interrupt-driven work through a “Work in Process Diet” and learning to say “No” or “Not Now”
- Switch to “continuously delivering value” rather than “big infrequent launches”
- Make it easy for marketers to work across marketing/inside sales siloes/disciplines
- Empower marketers to make more decisions, be less dependent on managers, and bring back the creativity and joy of marketing
The Marketing organization started the journey by identifying the guiding coalition. This included the SVP of Product Marketing, the Head of marketers with some exposure/experience in agile marketing, and Yuval Yeret, an SPCT with experience applying Lean/Agile/SAFe outside of its software/product development comfort zone.
We then performed some empathy interviews to understand the reality marketers were facing. We followed with an “Executive Workshop” with the CMO and her leadership team focusing on SAFe and Agile Marketing principles and practices. This provided an understanding of what we were aiming to implement in the trenches and created the personal connection that we could leverage to gain their support/aircover.
We identified an area of opportunity – a group responsible for marketing one of the product groups in the corporate portfolio. This group included all the marketing disciplines: Field, Product, Integrated, as well as inside/inbound sales leaders.
Within this group, we agreed to form real agile teams organized around value, mostly using a stream-aligned topology:
- Buyer’s journey – Several stream-aligned teams each covered a different product/solution
- Annual conference – Another team was focused on developing the group’s presence for the company’s annual customer conference.
Each stream-aligned team included the most relevant marketing disciplines: Digital/Integrated, Field/Event, Product Marketing. The Buyer’s journey teams also included Inbound Sales representatives.
These stream-aligned teams were supported by several shared services:
- Social Marketing – The one social marketing expert on the Agile Marketing Train periodically embedded in one of the buyer’s journey teams to support a campaign in focus. They also spent time as an enabler for other marketers providing training/coaching on effective social marketing approaches to include in your campaigns. They acted as a platform team providing tools/platforms more and more marketers could use (e.g. Hootsuite).
- MarTech/Analytics – Marketing Owners (POs in classic Scrum) were chosen based on the most relevant person to guide a team from a value creation/marketing impact perspective. In one team it was the Product Marketer for the product. In the conference team, it was the Field marketer who’s the expert on conferences in general and this conference specifically.
We were now ready to launch this group as a “Marketing Train”. We used a quickstart approach – we combined SAFe/agile marketing training with PI Planning (called “Big Room Planning” in this company). Functional managers, as well as functional SVPs, were invited to this quickstart both to get a deeper understanding of the approach as well as to help with change management. Their involvement in this initial event carried dividends when we needed their support later on and had a direct intimate connection to them.
We could now turn our attention to real agility at the team level. This included coaching the agile teams on:
- Empowerment – team members were empowered to figure out how much to pull into their iteration as well as how to do their work. We coached both the teams as well as the “Marketing Owners” and functional managers on the need to delegate the majority of the day-to-day decisions to the team. We used delegation exercises to explore this topic early on.
- Autonomy – Team members were involved not just in how but also in what marketing tactics to leverage to achieve their marketing goals.
- Focus – Team members learned to focus on fewer areas, own their commitment (“This is what we can do this iteration”, “We cannot start this now, let’s wait until we finish something”), and set a sustainable pace.
- Relentless Improvement – Teams started to leverage frequent retrospectives to inspect and adapt their approach both to agile as well as to marketing in general.
Early in the transition to stream-aligned teams, Functional managers were struggling with their role. Senior leaders still expected them to manage and be accountable to the work happening in their function on the Agile Marketing Train. They continued to expect detailed reports and injected work for their people on the teams, which conflicted with the team backlog. We helped these functional managers adopt a servant leadership mindset. We engaged them in actively managing (ROAMing) risks that the teams couldn’t address themselves. Beyond the help in removing impediments, this served to involve them in a healthy manner and provided a continued touchpoint for us to coach them on how to effectively show up to support their people without being in their way. We worked on reducing the amount of departmental/functional overhead, streamlining interfaces with Legal, Procurement, and other meaty issues.
Once an agile approach to planning and execution was in place, we started to focus on moving from managing tasks to achieving outcomes through customer/buyer-focused stories in the marketing backlog. Business and Sales started to understand what the marketers were talking about and were better positioned to provide early feedback on what to focus on. This resulted in more impactful increments of work that increased marketing’s contribution to the pipeline.
The group achieved significant improvements in Sales and Marketing KPIs. This was achieved by teams sensing gaps and responding between and even during Sprints. In their words during an Inspect and Adapt workshop: “The Sales Pipeline is now consistently green.”
During the second PI for this Agile Marketing Train the CEO asked marketing to launch several competitive campaigns. The agile group delivered successfully while other more traditional groups were still struggling to deliver. This created hunger in other areas to adopt Agile Marketing as well.
Marketers’ engagement and satisfaction improved as measured by significant rises in:
- “Proud to work for the company”
- “Recommend the company as a great place to work”
- “Appropriately involved in decisions affecting my work”
- “Valued as an employee”
Anecdotal comments like “We are finally able to do some of the creative work we came into marketing for” summarize the impact of the change on individual marketers.
In the words of one of the SVPs as they observed one of the PIP events:
“The Agile delivery group developed a shared vision, defined business objectives, and had everyone necessary to make decisions and commitments in the room. Shared ownership, accountability, and empowerment enabled them to make the decision to pivot – twice – based on stakeholder input…without getting their bosses’ approval because they knew and were aligned on the business objective.”
Marketing Development and Operational Value Streams
Agile Marketing focuses on the Marketing Development Value Stream while involving marketers that also participate in the Marketing/Sales Operational Value Stream.
We applied Agile to Marketing’s “Development Value Stream” – creating marketing content, artifacts, plays, rather than the Buyer’s journey (in SAFe terms “Operational Value Stream”) where the flow of leads is actually managed. Many marketers were actually involved in both types of work. For example, a Field Marketer was involved both in preparing the company presence for an industry conference as well as manning the booth.
The shifting role of functional managers
Functional managers had to significantly change their interactions with their people on the Agile Marketing Train. Instead of managing their work and being accountable to it in the eyes of senior leadership, they became lean/agile leaders actively working with their peers to set the marketers in the trenches up for success. SAFe provided the constructs that enabled/guided this change in mindset and behavior.
Tip: Be prepared to coach Senior leaders to change their expectations from functional managers.
Using SAFe for Business Agility
The framework and most curriculums were too deep and engineering-oriented for the marketers. They prefer lighter-weight processes and short introductions rather than deep training. Since the SAFe Agile Marketing workshop wasn’t available at the time, we essentially created a home-grown version of it.
For example, While SAFe’s WSJF-based economic prioritization works very well to help marketers make sense of continuous demand, “Features” don’t translate too well to a marketing context. Terms like “Marketing Plays” seem to resonate better.
Tip: When applying SAFe outside of IT you’ll be working in exploration mode trying to identify the right language, process, structure. Make sure your SAFe experts/change agents have a deep understanding of the principles and can rely on experience with a variety of contexts both because it will help them provide useful guidance as well as because it will increase the chance your people will listen to them and follow their guidance.
Organizing around Value
We saw great results with stable stream-aligned teams focusing on a buyer’s journey for a product/customer segment balanced with dynamic reteaming to focus on specific marketing challenges/initiatives.
This brought to life The CMO’s desire to see mini CMOs throughout the organization. Each agile team synthesized/integrated across functions without a need to go up the hierarchy. As a result, Marketing leadership now had more time to work strategically and set appropriate vision and guardrails.
Tip: Beware the “inhouse agency” model advocated by some marketing consultancies. Shared Services have their place in the case of complicated systems but topologies such as platform or enabling teams are generally much more effective than outsourcing work to specialized teams.
Agile Marketing as a stepping stone towards Business Agility
In this case, we included inside Sales as part of our initial team formation – this is similar to applying DevOps – owning the full marketing pipeline – from developing marketing solutions to “operating” them – getting leads and working to convert them to opportunities and sales in inside sales. The next steps would include joining forces with product development in one stream-aligned group that’s able to also grow the product capabilities in a way that drives more demand for the product (e.g. using freemium business models).
Agile Marketing is not just for small nimble companies. If applied in a pragmatic principles-based manner using a framework like SAFe, Agile marketing can be even more impactful for larger marketing organizations with several legacy siloes that are striving to become more relevant, outcome-oriented, data-driven, and responsive as they join the digital age.